Art AIDS America Chicago
through April 2, 2017
Alphawood Gallery |2401 North Halsted Street |Chicago, Illinois 60614
Free Admission |Timed Admission Passes Recommended
This past weekend, I went to an amazing art exhibition Art AIDS America Chicago. If you are able to see it here in Chicago before it closes in April, I would highly recommend it. It’s as emotionally gripping as contemporary art exhibitions come, and many pieces had me wiping tears from my eyes. There are works by well-known artists like Keith Haring, Andres Serrano, Barbara Kruger, and Robert Mapplethorpe. There are many works by artists whose names I did not know. It’s not in a larger museum. The gallery was built out just for this exhibit in a former bank in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not far from DePaul University. The space works beautifully, and the curatorial decisions were spot on. There was also an element of community engagement, with free HIV testing and opportunity to contribute to oral history projects.
The AIDS crisis is a pivotal point in my life, even though I am HIV-negative. I came out as gay in Fall 1987. AIDS was still a virtual death sentence and the stigma and shame was overwhelming. Most of society linked it with gay sex, IV drug use, and immigrant populations. The messaging that it was God’s punishment on sinners was all over the media. The Federal government was doing very little to help those suffering with the disease or doing any kind of public education toward prevention.
This fear of infection combined with my uncertain and emerging sexuality and my Catholic upbringing to really mess up any chance that I may have had to develop a healthy sex-positive attitude. Even today, I feel a bit damaged around these issues. It has had a profound effect, even after decades of personal growth.
I seriously dated a man in the late 1990’s who was not only HIV-positive, but was a “Lazarus” case. He had lost his longtime partner to AIDS and seems to be at death’s door, when an improved drug cocktail caused his health to turn around. Being close to someone with that history and with an immune system that was still badly compromised was very enlightening. It made the personal reality of the disease so much more real.
Today, I have many friends living with HIV, but the treatments have improved so much that I don’t often think about it. The costs and struggles are still real for them, but it is not the kind of catastrophic tragedy that it was in the 80’s and early 90’s. Quite a few of the artists featured in the exhibition have birth dates not much before mine – and death dates in the 1990s. The desperate and beautiful creativity is still with us through their art. Their struggles, their loves, their anger, their sex, their kink, their hope – it’s still there for us.